A substantial body of evidence demonstrates that increases in alcoholic beverage taxes result in reduced alcohol consumption and improvements in various health outcomes, especially for youth. Youth under the age of 21 are especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol since alcohol consumption contributes to the three leading causes of death for adolescents (i.e., unintentional injuries, homicide, and suicide) and is a risk factor for a host of negative behaviors and experiences (e.g., sexual assault, school truancy, and fighting). Alcohol use among youth is strongly associated with alcohol abuse in adulthood; youth who drink before age 15 are five times more likely than youth who wait until 21 to begin drinking to develop alcohol abuse or dependence as adults. Sadly, youth in Alaska in 2009 consumed 17.9 percent of alcohol sold in the state that year.
The Surgeon General and the Institute of Medicine have both advocated specifically for increases in alcohol excise taxes as a means of reducing underage drinking. Proposition B-1 instituting a 5 percent alcohol tax in Mat-Su will help to reduce youth alcohol consumption in Mat-Su and will help pave the way for a successful alcohol sales tax campaign in Anchorage.
Alcohol taxes have another huge documented public health benefit. Alcohol taxes significantly reduce the alcohol mortality rate. In 1983 and 2002, Alaska-wide alcohol tax increases resulted in a 29 percent decrease and an 11 percent decrease, respectively, in the number of alcohol-related deaths. It's incredibly rare that a single program or treatment or approach moves a major health indicator like mortality within one year. Alcohol taxes do just that.
Alaska alcohol consumption patterns are similar to those in the lower 48. Liquor and wine sales have increased in Alaska at the same time that beer sales have decreased. On the whole, per capita alcohol consumption in Alaska has stayed fairly level at approximately three gallons a year since 1997--with one exception.
The one notable fluctuation in gallons of alcohol consumed since 1997 took place in 2002, when there was a decrease in the amount of alcohol sold. This decrease took place the same year that Alaska increased alcohol taxes to their current state level. The decrease in consumption, which was maintained in 2003, reflects an immediate impact of the increased state alcohol tax. In 2004 alcohol sales returned to their previous levels as the impact of the sales tax eroded due to inflation. The effects of alcohol taxes on alcohol consumption in our state are the same as they are everywhere: increases in taxes results in decreases in consumption.
While we made these temporary gains in reducing alcohol consumption per capita, we've made great lasting strides in reducing some of the negative impacts of alcohol. Between 2005 and 2011, the percentage of Mat-Su high school students reporting binge drinking decreased 41.5 percent; and riding during the past 30 days with a driver who had been drinking alcohol declined over 24 percent. Youth binge drinking declined statewide as well. Local substance abuse prevention coalitions in Anchorage and Mat-Su have worked hard to reduce and prevent underage drinking.
But our work is far from done, as the rates of youth binge drinking for Mat-Su, Anchorage and Alaska still exceed the Healthy Alaska 2020 and Healthy People 2020 targets. Alaskans are concerned about our youth. We want them to have a healthy and prosperous future.
Alcohol taxes are part of a broad strategy to keep these underage drinking indicators moving in the right direction. Alcohol taxes are part of a broad strategy to reduce death caused by alcohol. Alcohol taxes are part of the solution to complex problems caused by a commodity that generates revenue but at an enormous social cost to all of us. Alcohol taxes shift some of that cost burden to those high consumers who create much of the cost.
Documentation for all of the above statistics can be found in our white paper on the alcohol tax at www.healthymatsu.org .
Elizabeth Ripley is executive director of the Mat-Su Health Foundation.
By ELIZABETH RIPLEY